Is the ‘modern dad’ really that modern?

Chris Bowlby looks at the sterotype of the 'modern dad' and traces its historical roots

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Discussions on modern parenting are full of the idea of revolutionary change. The increasing opportunity to combine parenting with work outside the home has clearly made a huge difference to women. As for men, the assumption is that the emotionally distant,  work-absorbed fathers of the past have been succeeded today by the much more parentally focused ‘modern dad’ .

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But is this right? Dr Laura King of the University of Warwick has researched intensively the role and perception of fathers. She is currently running a project called ‘Hiding in the Pub to Cutting the Cord?’ about fatherhood and childbirth (www.go.warwick.ac.uk/chmfatherhood).
And what she has found is that fathers have often been more engaged than stereotypes suggest. “By recognising the long history of active fatherhood,” she argues, “it is clear that men have not suddenly started engaging with their children in meaningful ways.”

The first point of engagement is birth itself. The number of fathers attending the birth of their children has gone up markedly in the last few decades. But some upper-class fathers were present long before. Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, for example, was noted for attending the births of several of his children.

The history of paternity leave is more revealing. It is widely regarded these days as an innovation that enables fathers to be involved in their children’s earliest months. But Dr King has discovered that informal paternity leave goes back a long way. In working-class households, men would often take time off after a birth, even if it was unpaid or seen as sickness absence rather than specific provision for paternity. “Throughout the 20th century”, she concludes, “fathers found a variety of ways to help their wives during the important period around and just after a baby’s birth.”

Emotional engagement with children also has a more complex history than stereotypes of, say, the tyrannical Victorian paterfamilias might suggest. Discussions addressing ‘tenderness’ in father-child relationships go back to the 18th century. There was, however, always a strand in some fathers’ thinking that saw commitment to work, to ‘putting bread on the table’ for the family, as a superior form of parental commitment to spending time with children.

Fathers’ roles developed further, Laura King argues, post-1945 as “a family-oriented masculinity emerged after the war”. There was a new emphasis on parenting and its contribution to “moving back to normality”, in which parents shaped children’s psychological as well as material well-being.

Whatever the psychological support they offered, the practical contribution men have made to looking after children did not always change as rapidly. One research study based in Nottingham compared men’s contribution in the 1960s to that of the 1980s. While men in the 80s were more willing to look after children waking at night, around 40 per cent in both studies rarely changed nappies.

Perceptions of different male and female parental roles not only influenced public policy in areas such as parental leave and childcare. Perhaps most contentiously, they have shaped the fraught debate about the custody or residence of children when relationships break down. Laura King notes a long shift from the beginning of the 20th century when legal control over children was given to fathers “because of long-held attitudes about the inherent authority of the father” to modern legal norms that reflect more “society’s belief in the superior innate parental instincts and abilities of mothers”.

Courts or social workers assumed mothers were always primary or exclusive carers of children, just as policy makers assumed limited male interest in paternity leave.

So it is necessary, concludes Dr King “to move on from the notion that fathers are inferior as parents in comparison to mothers, and that they have only recently become fully involved in their children’s lives”. There is certainly some truth in the image of the nappy-averse father, hiding in the pub while his wife looks after their baby. But that has been far from the full story of British fatherhood.

Chris Bowlby is a presenter on BBC radio, specialising in history

Look out for previous Changing Times columns on our website www.historyextra.com/feature

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This series is produced with History & Policy. You can find out more about them and read their papers at www.historyandpolicy.org